Harlequin's Millions

Bohumil Hrabal

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and Harlequin's Millions climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the old folks' home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so no one is really aware of the music, only when there is a power failure and Harlequin's Millions is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of 'Sleeping Beauty', all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like all the lights going out and everyone longs to hear the music again, without which the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable. When this happens in the evening, or at dusk, they all look up at the darkened light bulbs and fluorescent lamps and keep looking until the lights go back on and the music begins to play where it had left off. At that moment all the pensioners sitting in the corridors, on the toilets, lying in bed, give a deep sigh and start listening to the music again they way they should be listening to it, with interest, life resumes and all those eyes, which have been gazing up with such eager, almost indignant anticipation, those eyes are lowered again, they look down at the floor, at the sand, because nearly all the pensioners have bowed heads, from old age and illness, and then they continue to study the texture of the carpet, linoleum, and sand, upon which they tread carefully, because here in the old folks' home you have to pay close attention to how you walk, because every fall can mean the loss of your mobility, one injury, and the fun is over, because here in the old folks' home anyone who can walk and get to the bathroom on their own is considered healthy. I walked around the castle until I reached the spot where they've put up a wire fence along the trees. The footpath ends there in grass. But I saw that the wire under the old, low-hanging branches had been trampled to the ground, all you had to do was grab one of the branches and you could step right over the trampled wire and continue along a forbidden path nearly overgrown with grass, a footpath that led, barely visible, to the castle terrace. I was all excited, I shivered, imagined that a nurse could see me here or the caretaker or the head doctor himself, but my desire to see the forbidden park was so great that I walked along the stretch of fence that was still standing all the way to the balustrade, from which you could see the little town where time stood still, but where the statues of naked young women and men stood out against the sky, statues of young men without clothing, of old men who covered their loins with billowing robes, each statue stood on a high plinth, so that I had to look up to see their sandstone bodies, each statue was carrying something, some object, or fruit... And even though I'd lived in the little town for forty years, I'd never found the time to come see this row of statues, or the footpaths that ended in a burst of stars, paths lined with pruned beech trees and every hundred yards a statue, one for each month of the year, against a backdrop of branches and twigs, the leaves of red beeches touching their beautiful human bodies. And when I stopped in front of the statue of a naked young woman, I didn't even have to read the old, moss-covered inscription and the poem chiseled into the plinth to know that this statue glorified the month of May. This statue of a young beauty with her small breasts and provocative hips had an even greater effect on me than a mirror. I suddenly understood why the old folks' home was separated from the park by a wire fence, I suddenly understood what it was to be young, to be a young woman, I reached out my hand and touched the calves and thighs and hips and felt the grainy texture of that female flesh, with my fingers I felt the beauty of that female skin and suddenly I understood why a few of the pensioners had dared to trample the fence to the ground and compare themselves, at their own risk, to those statues. So I stood there, I studied all the faces and bodies, and from the corner of my eye I discovered that what held those statues together had some deeper meaning, that in fact all the sculpted objects had a meaning, they actually represented the entire human race, in all its phases, and together they formed what we knew of as nature: spring, summer, fall, winter... I was standing there in front of the statue of May when suddenly I knew that I'd had to arrive at this point, just as I was, so that, while there was still time, I could penetrate the secret of each statue, perhaps even the secrets of all these statues, which would probably tell me nothing more than the story of life: a cycle I'd nearly reached the end of. I could see, in the sandstone statues, a kind of novel, the tale of someone who had been waiting here for me, to explain to me, in stone handwriting, what Count Špork and his guests must surely have known as they strolled past the statues reading the story of man. There was no one else walking in the park, down below was the little town, encircled by the river and the red medieval walls, rising up across the river was the beige-colored brewery, with its smoke stack, its tin roof gleaming, I had lived there happily for more than a quarter of a century, I had been happy there, because in those days I was as young and beautiful as the statue of that young woman, below whom the inscription "May" was just barely visible beneath the moss. I made a solemn promise to myself to walk down that forbidden path every day, to the statues, who had so much to tell me, because I had never, ever expected that life would go by so quickly. Before I had even taken a good look around me, I'd already plucked out my first gray hair. But in those days I was always under the impression that I still had plenty of time, that I had time for everything, that old age was something that didn't concern me. So I dyed my hair, smoothed my wrinkles with creams and massages, while Francin stayed the same, it even seemed to me that he was exactly the same as when he was thirty, but he too had grown older, because all of a sudden he was retired, all of a sudden we had moved to the little villa on the river that I had designed myself... and all of a sudden it was my birthday and I turned sixty and all of a sudden sixty-five and all of a sudden I got paradentosis and Mr. Šlosar pulled out all my teeth and promised he would make me a set of dentures more beautiful than my own teeth, that's what Mr. Šlosar told me, and I had believed his eyes and voice that assured me that false teeth gleamed brighter than the teeth he had pulled, in America it was even the custom that when you reach a certain age, you have all your healthy teeth pulled out and instead of those you wore teeth you could rinse under running water, filled teeth just kept on decaying and caused rheumatic diseases and heart problems. This had happened to me in the fall, Mr. Šlosar was in excellent spirits, I had heard that the fall was paradise for dental technicians, because it's hunting season, and the huntsmen in our little town celebrate the end of every hunt by drinking themselves silly, and early the next morning when one of them throws up in the ditch or the toilet bowl, he also spits out his expensive dentures, so from September to New Year's Mr. Šlosar has his hands full with all those teeth, he even has to work nights repairing and making new false teeth for his hunting clientele, while they have to pay three times more than what they had paid for their dentures the first time around. And when my gums were healed, I had him make a plaster cast and a month later I went back to him, full of hope, I smiled, because I knew that by the end of the day I would be wearing those porcelain teeth, that work of art, as Mr. Šlosar liked to call them, those lilies-of-the-valley that he would plant in my rosy gums. And Mr. Šlosar disappeared into his workshop and when he returned he was carrying something wrapped in cotton on a tin tray, he asked me to sit down in the chair, close my eyes and open my mouth, and he slid something cold and hard over my lower gums, my chin dropped under the weight of it, then he slid in something even more disgusting, some object that made me want to vomit, I started gagging, but the voice of Mr. Šlosar urged me to suck the silver plate to the roof of my mouth and wait until the dentures had warmed up a bit. And so I lay there, the woman who moments before had clapped her hands when she saw Mr. Šlosar walk in carrying his artificial remedy on a silver tray, now I had the feeling he had clamped my whole head in a vice, I felt myself turning deathly pale, my whole body and soul struggled against the humiliation and disgrace that had been shoved into my mouth, a hostile object in a cold, harsh cave, with cones of dripping stone above and below. I paid, Mr. Šlosar assured me it was only a matter of time before I would be used to the new teeth, under no circumstances was I to remove that artifact of his, which he had labored over with such care, I even had to sleep with it in, something aging saleswomen and office girls did best, since they couldn't possibly go to work without any teeth. He walked me all the way to the square, actually he had to hold me up, because when I left his dental studio it was as if he was leading a widow away from a grave, he held me up and whispered in my ear that I shouldn't run my curious tongue along the teeth, a curious and restless tongue could give you cavities, even cancer, one of his clients had contracted such a serious illness with her curious tongue that she'd had to be admitted to the psychiatric unit, the psychoanalyst had given her orders never, never, under any circumstances, to yield to her curious tongue, otherwise the cavities could turn into cancer, Mr. Šlosar said in parting that there were plenty of men, tough guys, who had a set of dentures made but only wore them once and then threw them in a drawer and trained their toothless gums on crusts of bread until they were beautifully callused, which was a perfect substitute for teeth, but still! I had always been an attractive woman, he told me, I would never make a fool out of him and I'd wear my teeth at all costs. He said this in a confidential tone and then slipped his own dentures out of his mouth and held them up before my eyes and said, I wanted to throw these away, too, but that was out of the question! How could I ever recommend false teeth to someone if I wasn't wearing them myself? That would be like Kolář the pharmacist having no hair and constantly trying to fob off his hair tonic on everyone else, his tried and tested hair tonic. The best thing for men with a new set of dentures, their first, was to take money out of the savings bank, or borrow it, or cajole their wives into giving them a thousand crowns so they could take a week off from work and sit in the pub surrounded by other people and drink beer or restorative beverages from morning till night, only then could they forget about those false teeth, that was certain, said Mr. Šlosar, the teeth have to stay in your mouth throughout the course of treatment... And I walked across the square with my head held high, I had to walk that way, because if I leaned forward even slightly, my head would drop and my teeth would fall out. I felt this, and I burst into tears, because I realized I was doomed to be an old woman, from this moment on I would be an old hag, a toothless old crone, because I couldn't bear having such a thing in my mouth, even if I were to take all my savings out of the bank and spend six months drinking champagne and beer, even then, and that's how well I knew myself, I wouldn't be able to endure those teeth, my whole body, my soul, everything was telling me those dentures were unwelcome, I couldn't help feeling that I'd been tricked, that they had stuck a blacksmith's anvil in my mouth, a big glass ashtray full of cigarette butts and burnt matches, two sharp river shells, on which I'd already cut my tongue, which was completely terrified and wriggling all around that strange thing in my mouth, I couldn't keep that tongue still, it wasn't curious, it was deranged, that finicky tongue of mine had gone out of its mind, it bled and could very easily have destroyed itself, just as hunters claim that if a weasel gets caught in a trap, it will be dead before sunset, even if it hasn't been wounded. And when I arrived home I got the old tool kit out of the Škoda 430, grabbed the metal lever for prying tires off the wheel, spit the teeth out onto the table, looked aghast at those choppers, which were laughing at me, the gums had fallen open in a wide grin, and with a few blows of the tire iron I smashed those very expensive teeth, the porcelain shattered like a beer bottle, I hammered away at those teeth as if I were the one who had gone out of my mind and I kept on hammering until the pink gums had turned to dust and teeth were flying around the kitchen. I swept together the remains and threw them in the stove...

translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht

Harlequin's Millions will be released in bookstores in April 2012. Used by permission of Archipelago Books.

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